12th January 2019
The Saturday Interview: Renee Topper
Good afternoon Ms Topper and thanks for your time. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Thanks, Mike. I appreciate the interest. I'm not nearly as exciting as my characters. I mindfully avoid drama, while they really get in the thick of things. That said, I do manage to lead a relatively interesting life. Through the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with some true legends, among them: Philip Johnson, Buzz Aldrin, and Peter Quinn. While always a versatile storyteller, I’ve produced and written for film. And I’m a bit of nerd in the best sense of the word.
Not exciting?! Working with Buzz Aldrin and working on films isn’t exciting?! You should see my day! What films have you worked on?
Well, I didn’t walk on the moon. I had the honor of working with someone who did. Okay, I’ll give. It was pretty awesome to have that opportunity. Excitement ebbs and flows for me. But my characters lead true-thriller lives. I co-wrote the feature FIVE THIRTEEN. It was a low budget indie thriller which I also script supervised that screened at Cannes in 2014. I’ve had some shorts produced. And I’ve also produced series, comic books, and other content for brands. TRAUMA QUEENS – a documentary on developmental trauma is in the works as I write this. And I’m keen to adapt PIGMENT into a feature.
‘Pigment’ won the 2016 LYRA award, won at the International Book Awards, won the Reader’s Favourite Award and the International Authors award. To what do you ascribe this remarkable success?
I’m humbled by it. PIGMENT is a unique story that addresses a very bizarre happening in real life, and structurally it riffs on traditional plot mechanisms. People have told me they’ve never read anything like it. This and, as hard-hitting as it is, it’s a page-turner, so readers don’t have to stay too long in the darkness of it, there is also some light to balance for breath. In addition to the awards, rewards are also inherent in people reading the book. A story told is a win. I’ve got a stack of unproduced screenplays, and that’s depressing. They are stories untold. Recently, at a book signing party in Florida, one reader shared a beautiful story about the journey of her copy of PIGMENT. She lent her copy of the book to her sister. Her sister read it and in turn, lent that same copy to a cleaning woman she knows. The book circulated among several cleaning ladies – who don’t have the luxury of buying their own copies – and then it came full circle back to the owner. It was an absolute pleasure to sign it after its long journey!
What is it, do you think, that people find so compelling about it?
Many readers have commented that they were not aware of the plight of albino people in Tanzania before reading the book. Truth is compelling. Being able to be immersed in the pages of a world that reflects real events happening a plane ride away is compelling. It’s like looking into humanity’s mirror. And doing so in the company of very flawed characters keeps the experience realistic and full of unexpected moments.
The Reader’s Favourite Award was for social issues. Are exploring these something close to your heart?
Absolutely. I’m mission-driven to create stories that shine a light on root causes of social issues and inspire solutions. PIGMENT explores dissociation -- humanity’s failure to recognize its relations. People aren’t recognizing their own brothers and sisters. They are instead divided by fear and ignorance. What makes a people so desperate they make a currency of their own children? I’m compelled to ask these types of questions on a quest to answer the why, beyond the what.
Will your future works explore similar issues or will you address other areas?
Disassociation is the seed issue for many social issues. So, yes, I believe this will continue to be a core issue. It is very present in PIGMENT, SUNSET BLUES, and all my current projects. That said, the related issues are also explored -- racism, human trafficking, trauma, class division – some more than others. I’m working on a sci-fi novel that explores humans in relation to nature, science, and technology. But this one won’t be ready to share for a couple of years.
How did you go about turning ‘Pigment’ into an audiobook? Were there many auditions for voice actors, for example?
Ah, it was a learning experience to be sure. I did a lot of research on finding the best options. I wrestled with what would be the best type of voice and what audiences statistically like to hear. I held one round of auditions through an online marketplace, and that helped me determine which direction was best to go for the recording. I landed on a voice that makes sense for the full series -- an Irish brogue – as I hear the character Fionna in my head. Spoiler Alert: we meet her again in the upcoming sequel PIGMENT: Roots. Bronagh Gallagher (@bronaghgall) is a superb talent, and dear friend and I asked her to read the book and if she’d consider doing the voice over. Full disclosure, I think of Bronagh when writing the character. Thankfully, she said yes. Then I worked with her agents to formalize the agreement. It’s truly an international production on so many levels. Since we scheduled the recording between shoots and performances and while she was in Dublin, I hired a recording studio and engineers there. They were all stars! I also opted to distribute the audiobook through Scribl.com. They were in beta and were above and beyond supportive in the tech aspect of things. They have a progressive incentive for authors and a wide distribution.
That sounds like a really involved process. What lessons do you think you learned through doing it?
As a producer, it was a big lesson in letting go because I wasn’t able to be in the studio during the recording sessions or editing. Thankfully, the work was in the best of hands. Mind you, I love production, so I was missing out on the fun of it too.
I’m still watching the audiobook market as it evolves. And what new solutions there are for indie authors/publishers. We create, produce, promote, and sometimes even distribute the content. Collectively we have the power to influence percentages and outcomes.
Your website ‘Story Matter’ has been described as a ‘creative lab’. What does that mean?
I work in many formats, so it serves to have a place physically, mentally and virtually where I can test out stories, and work with fellow creatives to experiment and execute. Over time, I aim to expand Story Matter (@StoryMatter) to include more books, audiobooks, comic books, films, series, augmented reality, VR, and more. Also, there is a scientific approach to storytelling at Story Matter -- similar to scientists, I first identify the problem, then explore for solutions.
That sounds really cool! Could you expand on the idea of a scientific approach?
It’s an ever-evolving method. It involves asking a lot of questions and positing solutions. What’s the story? What problem are you trying to solve for? What are you trying to explore or answer? What’s the best way to do so in a story? What is the best form? Is it a book, article, op-ed, series, feature, post? I’m weaving in more data analytics and other math-sciences to cultivate the most successful executions and outcomes.
That sounds really interesting. I’d be fascinated in what you discover. How do you find the writing community on Twitter?
I find it to be a nice crossroads for #indie authors and commercial #authors. We’re all there working to build our audiences and to support each other. It’s full of possibilities. I’m happy to have met you through #Twitter.
Thanks! You too! Do you think that it’s important for authors to have an online presence in a way that it wasn’t five or ten years ago?
I wasn’t a published author five years ago, so I wasn’t paying as close attention to this market or strategies. I have spoken with indie authors who were thriving five and ten years ago. The market is all the more inundated with books and authors now, and they are feeling the pinch in their sales. There is a need to be present if you are going to be counted let alone stand out. I believe having an online presence is essential. But it is more than that, you need to make the first move, go to your potential audience, and introduce yourself.
Thank you very much for your time.
My pleasure. Thanks, Mike!